FPRI Post: Would jihad’s new generation kill al Qaeda’s global leader Zawahiri?

This week, I had the opportunity to write up a short post on the possibility that the new generation of jihadi recruits, fighting primarily in Syria but also across a plethora of al Qaeda affiliates, might dethrone al Qaeda’s global leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in order to pave the way for a new targeting focus and direction. Since the al Qaeda fractures in Syria emerged last summer, the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) has openly rebuked Zawahiri.  Their targeting focus, mission and direction have been more focused on creating an Islamic state and fighting more for local and sectarian issues than global jihad.  ISIS has been directly undermined, disavowed and attacked based on Zawahiri’s direction and jihadis are now in open conflict with each other in Syria.

Today, there is more incentive than any other time for jihadis to either kill al Qaeda’s global leader or assist in his capture/elimination at the hands of Western or Pakistani counterterrorism forces.  Here is the introduction to the discussion I posted at FPRI and read the entire post at this link.  I’ve also posted one of my favorite tweets reference this dilemma and its historical connections to modern jihad’s founder: Abdallah Azzam.

In November of 1989, a car passed through a street in Peshawar, Pakistan only to be demolished by a roadside bomb.  Inside, the single most inspirational figure of the Afghanistan jihad, Abdallah Azzam, lay dead along with two of his sons.  The most effective jihadi prostelytizer of his era, Azzam inspired thousands to come and fight in the name of Islam to defeat Soviet aggression in Afghanistan.  Later, Azzam’s campaign and concepts would morph to become part of the foundation for the world’s most notorious terror group–al-Qaeda.

Jihadis prefer to pass blame for Azzam’s death to the Mossad; a convenient scapegoat that would seemingly make sense in one context.  Azzam, a Palestinian by birth, toyed with the notion of carrying the jihad from Afghanistan to Palestine.  But the evidence of Mossad responsibility is scant, and in reality its equally or more plausible that Azzam’s death came not from afar but from within jihadi ranks.  At the time of his death, younger jihadis were interested in sustaining the Peshawar base as a training and staging ground for global jihad against other apostate regimes.  Usama Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Musab al-Suri were some of the foreign fighters wishing to continue the jihadi campaign elsewhere, but they were likely stifled by the older and wiser Azzam.  While we can’t know for sure whether Bin Laden, Zawahiri, Suri or one of their contemporaries triggered Azzam’s assassination rather than the Mossad or Pakistani ISI, when comparing two theories the general rule of thumb is the simplest explanation is more likely the correct one.  Who would have a stronger motive for Azzam’s murder, easier access to Azzam as a target and the ability to effectively employ an IED on a moving car?  The Israeli Mossad based thousands of miles away and likely more focused on local terror concerns at their doorstep?  Or the emerging generation of al-Qaeda, disagreeing with their leader over direction and targeting, jealous of Azzam’s fame, well trained in roadside bombs and with easy access to the target?

I point to the historical example of Azzam because the past decade’s narratives of a unified al-Qaeda bound tightly by an all powerful ideology have blinded us to a truth that is only now revealing itself.  Today, the greatest threat to al-Qaeda is al-Qaeda.  One year ago, I had several Twitter arguments with counterterrorism (CT) aficionados over the possibility of al-Qaeda killing off its own members.  Some thought this preposterous, arguing the ideological underpinnings of al Qaeda were so strong as any such internal violent purge would be deemed unethical by global jihadi cadres.  But my past research on al-Qaeda’s internal documents convinced me long ago that the terror group was just like any organization-–full of petty, bickering and competing individuals constantly undercutting each other.  When things go poorly, jihadis behave badly, and ideology doesn’t pave over the differences and jealousy between al-Qaeda members.

Screen Shot 2014-04-23 at 2.28.41 PM

Has ‘Old Guard’ Al Qaeda Shifted Their Targeting Focus?

Today, the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia provided me the platform to discuss something new I’m exploring; a potential shift in ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda targeting towards Israel.  Yesterday brought the announcement of three al Qaeda operatives being interdicted as they developed plans to attack targets in Jerusalem.   Here is the introduction to the article and see the full post and discussion points at this link.

“While al Qaeda connections to Gaza and Palestinians are not unheard of, they appear less frequently.   Terrorist group competition for Palestinian manpower continues to be quite intense. Al Qaeda came after, not before, groups like Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and many others.  But with Hamas pursuing a more political path and young boys willing to fight, al Qaeda might be finding a ripe audience for their message.  The article continues by explaining how the Internet facilitated recruitment of parallel operatives:

“The Shin Bet said an al-Qaida operative in Gaza, named as Ariv Al-Sham, recruited the men separately from one another, and had planned to activate three independent terrorist cells via his recruits. Senior Shin Bet sources said they believed Al-Sham received his orders directly from the head of al-Qaida’s central structure, Ayman Al-Zawahri….In the planned attack, terrorists would have fired shots at the bus’s wheels, causing it to overturn, before gunning down passengers at close range, and firing on emergency responders….Abu-Sara also volunteered to help orchestrate a double suicide bombing, involving the dispatching of two suicide bomber to the Jerusalem Convention Center and the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, simultaneously. Subsequently, Abu-Sara planned to detonate a suicide truck bomb in the vicinity of emergency responders arriving at the Convention Center….Abu-Sara was also supposed to travel to Syria for training in combat and explosives manufacturing, and had purchased a flight ticket to Turkey, a gateway to Syria.”

FPRI Post: Do al Qaeda affiliates have a plan?

Today, I got the opportunity to post a discussion piece on whether al Qaeda affiliates actually follow a plan in light of the many opportunities and competing interests at play.  Recently, there has been renewed discussion about “the Next Bin Laden”.  I’m not a big fan of these kinds of posts. But I did think it was worth discussing whether these al Qaeda affiliates actually have any sort of plan and if so, do they follow any of the lauded al Qaeda strategy documents put out by their theorists?

Here’s an introduction to the post and you can read the rest at FPRI:

The rise of many jihadi affiliates around the Africa and the Middle East has renewed the American mediaquest to anoint “The Next Bin Laden”. Lacking any real information or expertise on emerging leaders some analyses has settled on older known quantities; namely Abu Musab al-Suri. (I wonder if someone just changed the date on this article from 2005 to 2013, Lawrence Wright does a better breakdown of Suri at this link from September 11, 2006.) While I’ve always been a critic of Suri, the article does raise an interesting question: do the mish-mash of “al Qaeda-in-name” affiliates actually have a plan for their actions?  Most importantly, what is the plan for Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (aka ISIS/AQ in Iraq) as they move forward in Syria?

If al Qaeda affiliates were to actually build a plan from their own lessons learned, I would assume they might reference three jihadi planners of note and several other lesser-known jihadi veterans old and new.  For the “Big Three” and their relevant works I would pick:

  1. Abu Musab al-Suri and his lengthy 1600 page The Call to Global Islamic Resistance released in 2005
  2. Bin Laden’s final strategic thoughts from Abbottabad
  3. Abu Bakr Naji’s 2004 upload The Management of Savagery

I’ll discuss some of my general notions about these three influences and my opinion on whether any of these three actually make much of an impression on current jihadi conflicts.

Zawahiri commands only some of the world’s “al Qaeda’s”

Despite gaining ground in some countries and encountering opportunities for revitalization in Syria and Egypt, al Qaeda, as a single entity, continues to fracture.  For al Qaeda’s second global leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, much of this has been his own doing.  After the death of Bin Laden, Zawahiri, like many new bosses, tried to assert control by pushing forward via many affiliates and in many regions.  Zawahiri had always been a bit more aggressive than Bin Laden who was more pragmatic and cautious in undertaking new endeavors learning from the group’s early 1990s follies in Sudan and Somalia.Screen Shot 2013-11-26 at 3.12.59 PM

@will_mccants this past week excellently captured Zawahiri’s dilemma  in his Foreign Affairs article, “How Zawahiri Lost Control of al Qaeda.”  As I bitterly noted yesterday in my rant on media depictions of an all powerful and cohesive al Qaeda, we now see many “al Qaeda-like” things on the global stage only some of which truly follow al Qaeda Central’s guidance.  As McCants notes,

Paradoxically, one major reason that al Qaeda affiliates are not getting along is the great many opportunities before them. The turmoil in the Arab world has created security vacuums that Zawahiri has sought to exploit by calling on his local affiliates to set up shop. As they move in, they often disagree about who should be in charge.

Ahh, so who is boss?  Many believed al Qaeda was a fluid and thriving terror group because petty personal squabbles were put aside by these extremely devout al Qaeda members who always put jihadi ideology over their own interests.  As detailed in Jacob Shapiro’s new book The Terrorist’s Dilemma and frequently seen amongst the new affiliates, personal interests routinely trump al Qaeda’s global agenda.  So what is Zawahiri to do asks McCants:

Zawahiri could still pare back his organization. He could amicably part company with al Shabaab in Somalia and sever ties with AQI. The open defiance of the latter would certainly merit such a response. But al Qaeda’s leadership has historically preferred to admonish wayward affiliates rather than cut them loose. During the Iraq war, Zarqawi severely damaged al Qaeda’s global reputation by mismanaging his organization. Yet al Qaeda’s leadership preferred to privately scold him rather than cut him loose. Better to have an affiliate behaving badly, al Qaeda central figured, than to have no affiliate at all.

Zawahiri faces a different challenge than Bin Laden: a lack of levers to rein in disobedient affiliates.  As seen from the Abottabad documents, affiliates of all shapes and sizes still wanted to please Bin Laden.  Additionally, Bin Laden, as Gregory Johnsen notably pointed out, had what other al Qaeda leaders didn’t have: money. The respect earned from the Afghan mujahideen years, the success of the 9/11 attacks, his money and personal network, as well as steady communication all resulted in Bin Laden holding a series of levers with which to admonish wayward leaders and affiliates.  Today, Zawahiri does not host these attributes nor enjoy these levers and thus has little ability to punish those out of step with his wishes.  The next year will certainly be critical for seeing what shape al Qaeda takes in the future, and whether it will have much of any resemblance of the al Qaeda of old.



FPRI Post – Zawahiri’s Latest Message: Please Listen To Me!

Today, I posted my latest thoughts at FPRI on Ayman al-Zawahiri’s public guidelines for all jihadis.  In my discussion, I talk about the agency problems Zawahiri appears to be having with his affiliates; most notably al-Badgdadi of al Qaeda in Iraq/ISI/ISIS or whatever they are calling themselves this week.  Syria has for some time been the great hope for al Qaeda to be resurgent.  Yet, al Qaeda globally seems to be in a fight for control over this jihadi prize.  Here’s a snippet from the article and you can read the entire post at this link.

First, let’s explore why Zawahiri would issue public rather than private guidance to the global jihadi community. Normally, al Qaeda might broadcast strategic vision publicly, but reserve directives and corrective guidance via secure communications.  The most famous intercept of these private communications comes from Zawahiri’s 2006 scolding of abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi for counterproductive violence against Shia in Iraq.  In addition, the Harmony documents provide countless other examples of al Qaeda’s internal directives and squabbles.  More recently some private communications to jihadi groups in Syria have allegedly surfaced showing dissatisfaction between Zawahiri and al Qaeda in Iraq’s emir abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.  Al Qaeda, like most any terrorist organization, normally delivers these messages in private for several reasons:

  1. Airing internal squabbles publicly hurts the organization’s popular support and certain leader’s authority,
  2. Public messaging can reveal strategy and orders to adversaries (counterterrorists) enabling their efforts to defeat the terrorist organization, and
  3. Such messaging can, at times, severely reduce the security and success of al Qaeda affiliates.

In short, this message went public because Zawahiri’s guidance isn’t being followed. Al Qaeda Central messages and directives either can’t get to affiliates or they are being ignored.  Both scenarios are problematic for the terror group.

Shabaab in Somalia Getting Left Out of Al Qaeda’s Party

Recent weeks have seen a flurry of articles touting a resurgent al Qaeda.  I have lots of grumblings about this notion, which I’ll post separately in the coming days – namely that al Qaeda has actually done nothing as of the writing of this post to achieve its so called resurgence.

The nexus of recent U.S. embassy closures and increased drone attacks allegedly came from an intelligence intercept of an al Qaeda conference call – or as we’ve now learned was probably not a conference call at all but instead some sort of an online chat where people that may or may not have involved high level leaders of al Qaeda affiliates or atleast some dudes that might know important people in al Qaeda affiliates.  (We really don’t know anything essentially) What was interesting about the al Qaeda conference call that wasn’t a conference call was who did not participate.  Check out this list of participants from the Daily Beast:

Al Qaeda members included representatives or leaders from Nigeria’s Boko Haram, the Pakistani Taliban, al Qaeda in Iraq, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and more obscure al Qaeda affiliates such as the Uzbekistan branch. Also on the call were representatives of aspiring al Qaeda affiliates such as al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula, according to a U.S. intelligence official.

Who is missing? uuhhh, al Shabaab right?

Maybe the source just forgot al Shabaab, but I think chances are that Shabaab wasn’t invited to participate in the call.  Shabaab isn’t out in Somalia, but they most certainly are a mess.  It was less than two years ago that Shabaab’s merger with al Qaeda was seen by many as a sign of that group’s growing strength with some in 2010 declaring Shabaab as al Qaeda’s strongest affiliate.  Having recruited the largest number of Western foreign fighters of any al Qaeda affiliate at the time, Zawahiri probably thought a merger might be a good opportunity during a time of relative decline in al Qaeda.

Instead he got involved in a distant and distracting quagmire in a country that has always been a problem for al Qaeda: Somalia. Since the beginning of 2013, Shabaab under Godane’s leadership has splintered.  Ibrahim al-Afghani publicly called for Zawahiri to replace Godane as head of Shabaab at a time when Godane was hunting the rebellious and disgruntled American jihadi Omar Hammami.  Later Godane would attempt to kill Hammami and then actually kill al-Afghani and others who called for his ouster.  Now, Shabaab appears to be fighting everyone; the Kenyans, Ethiopians, TFG/SNA/AMISOM and their former comrades that have aligned with Mukhtar Robow.



So what for Zawahiri and al Qaeda?  Egypt is an opportunity and Syria remains the center of gravity for foreign fighters.  But we should use caution when overstating Zawahiri’s ability to control al Qaeda affiliates in these ripe battlefields.  It was only a few months ago that al Qaeda went silent and turned a blind eye on its dysfunctional affiliate in Somalia.  Zawahiri ignored Afghani, Aweys and Hammami; passively letting his affiliate leader Godane kill al Qaeda members loyal to AQ Central.  Why should we be certain from a conference call that probably wasn’t a conference call that Zawahiri and al Qaeda are in control of a global insurgency in many countries?  While I do think al Qaeda has probably only delayed the attack that prompted the embassy closures, I don’t think the West should heap so much credit on an al Qaeda that just a few months ago couldn’t silence one of its most celebrated foreign fighters (Hammami) or remove its most divisive emir (Godane).

FPRI Follow up: External Drivers of AQ Plots & AQAP R&D Timelines

In follow up to the internal competition hypothesis I posted on Monday, I wrote another post at FPRI that went on to describe the many external forces that may be accelerating a Zawahiri-led al Qaeda to plot a global attack.  I didn’t want readers to get the impression that the motives for a plot were limited to just internal politics, there are many external forces likely driving al Qaeda action as well.  The post is here at this link at FPRI.

One of the points from this is AQAP and their talented bombmaker Asiri have had quite a while to develop a new and more sophisticated explosive device.  Here’s a quick snippet from that part of the FPRI post and a graphic I put together to illustrate what may be Asiri’s development pace.  Essentially, without drones and CT efforts, his pace of development may be considerably quicker than when there is overt Western and Arab counterterrorism pressure.  However, in both scenarios, no pressure and lots of pressure, if Asiri is still alive he’s likely to keep making more sophisticated devices and creating innovative plots.

“Pace of attacks, R&D and planning time – al-Qaeda affiliates have varying abilities to conduct attacks on the West and varying access to Western targets.  AQAP in Yemen has been the primary affiliate for attacking the West in recent years and a key component of this capability is Ibrahim Asiri – AQAP’s talented bombmaker.  Some news stories this week allege that Asiri and his band of bombmaking partners have developed the ability to make undetectable explosive clothing from a new liquid drying process.  As long as he’s alive, Asiri is likely to continue creating more sophisticated devices.  Drones and other counterterrorism actions may be able to slow down the pace of development but ultimately if Asiri and AQAP have even a small handful of operatives planning attacks on the West, there will eventually be more sophisticated plots arising. See the chart below (Figure A) for my crude estimate of Asiri and AQAP’s planning and development timeline since Dec. 2009 measured alongside the pace of U.S. drone strikes in Yemen (New America Foundation data).”


Guest Post at FPRI: al Qaeda Plots and the Era of Terrorism Competition

Today, I rather lately got around to a post on this past weekend’s embassy closures in response to an allegedly imminent al Qaeda plot to attack Western interests in the Middle East and North Africa. The goal of the post was to discuss some of the internal forces that might be driving al Qaeda Central to attack.  I then look at what how competition internally might be driving al Qaeda to act on plans for a large scale coordinated plot.

Here’s a snapshot of the article and a graphic I put together on one of my theories of how al Qaeda affiliated might be communicating.  For the whole post, visit this link here at FPRI.

“This latest threat to American and Western targets overseas is not surprising but is instead interesting because of what I perceive to be the many internal motivations of Zawahiri and al-Qaeda to plot a spectacular attack now.  Increasingly, al-Qaeda Central and what I would now call al-Qaeda Central Forward–al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) based in Yemen-–face stiff competition with one of its own affiliates, al-Qaeda in Iraq and their recent absorbtion Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria.”

Competing AQ Hypothesis

FPRI post on al Qaeda in Iraq’s rebuttal of Ayman al-Zawahiri

Today, the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) provided me the opportunity to write a follow up to my post from last week on Ayman al-Zawahiri’s problems trying to manage al Qaeda’s affiliates in the Levant.  Two weeks back, Zawahiri tried to dissolve the union of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and Jabhat al-Nusra and return each group back to its own space in Iraq and Syria respectively.  Well, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the emir of the ISI, decided not to comply with Zawahiri’s request publicly (allegedly) noting “Sharia Problems” with Zawahiri’s orders.

I wrote an extended follow up to this update at FPRI noting some of the things I find fascinating about this public disagreement.  If interested, here is the link to the FPRI post and here’s a short quote from the post’s conclusion.

Lastly, while al Qaeda may be degrading globally, the West should not mistakenly believe that jihadi violence will necessarily decrease.  On the contrary, competing al Qaeda affiliates may actually increase their attack tempo in an effort to assert themselves as the new leader post-Zawahiri and al Qaeda Central.  More successful attacks will likely lead to more media attention, more recruits and more resources. As I noted last year in “What if there is no al Qaeda?”, the U.S. may now be encountering many different regional terror groups. Some will require direct engagement and elimination. Some indirect engagement and disruption. And others may only require monitoring and little to no engagement.  Ultimately, in a post-al Qaeda-era (much like the post-Soviet-era), analysis, planning and decision-making will in many ways become more difficult rather than less difficult.

What is the state of al Qaeda & terrorism two years after Bin Laden? Vote Now!

Two years ago, Osama Bin Laden was killed in Pakistan marking one of the most significant milestones in the history of terrorism and counterterrorism. Two and a half years ago, I began conducting surveys to assess what the impact might be if Osama Bin Laden ever met his demise.  These surveys have since become an annual assessment I generate to gauge public perceptions of the threat of al Qaeda and terrorism in general.  While Bin Laden may be gone, terrorism continues and the past year has demonstrated how terrorist attacks might manifest themselves in a variety of ways from Benghazi to the Boston Marathon bombing.

Today, I’m launching the fifth iteration of the al Qaeda Strategy/Post Bin Laden Survey.  Thanks to those that have participated in versions #1 – Does Bin Laden Matter – Jan.2, 2011, #2 – AQ Strategy 2011-2012 – April 27. 2011, #3 – Terrorism Post-Bin Laden – May 2, 2011, #4 One Year After Bin Laden– May 2, 2012. You can find the results at this link which hosts the results of past surveys.

This poll is shorter and a bit different than past surveys.  Realizing there have been changes in terrorism, I opened the questions up a bit to include new emerging trends.  However, I did repeat some questions verbatim so we can see how our collective thinking has changed over time.

Thanks in advance for contributing to the survey. And anyone is welcome to participate – the more votes the better the results. I’ll begin posting the results and comparisons with past data sets in a few weeks.  Here is the link to the survey if you would like to open it in a separate window: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/2yearsafterBinLaden

And if you would like to just take the survey here, I’ve embedded it in this post.  Thanks for taking the survey!

Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey , the world’s leading questionnaire tool.